Okay, normally I wouldn't bother you about another bad book about "bad" films. I mean, obviously one man's so-awful-it's-good is another man's misunderstood masterpiece, and ultimately the point of film criticism -- or any critical writing about the arts -- isn't some kind of objective rating of aesthetic worth (which is of course impossible, and the pursuit of which leads you, a la Entertainment Weekly, to reduce all that is good and beautiful in this world to plus-or-minus letter grades). Rather, the point, as I believe George Bernard Shaw observed, is to make (your, i.e. the critic's) prejudices plausible. Everything else, as my fellow Red Sea Pedestrians put it, is so much chin music.
That said, a (from my perspective) bad book about "bad" films has just crossed my desk -- 150 Movies You Should Die Before You See [Adams Media, $14.95] -- and it annoyed me enough that I'm going to vent about it briefly, starting with its frankly incoherent and unfunny title. Apparently, these 150 movies will...kill you? You deserve to die if you see them? If you're dead and haven't seen them, you're lucky? Like I said, incoherent and unfunny.
Format-wise, each of the aforementioned 150 films gets a paragraph explaining why it sucks, which too often comes down to author Steve Miller (not, presumably, the man they call the Space Cowboy or the Pompitous of Love) saying merely that they do, indeed, suck, i.e., his prejudices are never made plausible. To give Miller his due, he includes enough background info on the films being dissed that I suppose 150 Movies is not without some small value as a reference work. Mostly, though, the book kind of seesaws between WTF? wrongheadedness and a really annoying philistinism (the latter a pitfall that's perhaps built into the bad movie book genre, as anybody who's ever actually read the Medved Brothers' various Golden Turkey tomes can attest.)
As an example of the former, Miller includes Edgar G. Ulmer's 1934, The Black Cat, with Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. This is a film widely acknowledged as one of the genuine classics of Universal's 30s horror cycle -- stylish (it's Ulmer, for heaven's sake), genuinely creepy and with the two stars at their peak. Miller concedes all that, so why is The Black Cat lumped in here with, say, Ring of Terror or Troll 2? Because, despite being a really really terrific film, "it has absolutely nothing to do with Edgar Allan Poe's short story....So why even bother to connect it to Poe?"
Okay, that's just dumb. But Miller's inclusion of Michael Cimino's 1980 Heaven's Gate is major league infuriating, largely because it's as predictable in its obeisance to the conventional wisdom as the dismissal of The Black Cat is in its fanboy contrarian perversity. By which I mean I have a sneaking suspicion that Miller's probably read about HG more than he's actually watched it. Call me crazy, but any film with a sequence as gorgeous as the one below -- and Heaven's Gate has a bunch of them -- probably doesn't deserve the author's curt dismissal that it's "torture to sit through."
This isn't the time or the place to go into a longwinded defense of Heaven's Gate, which in any case, I firmly believe speaks for itself (or would, if there was a DVD version available at the moment that looks as good as that clip). Suffice it to say that its less than stellar reputation, IMHO, has less to do with the film per se or the fact that Cimino went over budget (you can see every goddamn dollar on screen, BTW), but rather (as I've noted here in the past) with its defiantly left-wing politics; the story is about dirt poor farmers being murdered by greedy Oligarchs, a deliberate parallel with what was going on in Central America in the Age of Reagan. The irony, of course, is that Cimino had earlier drawn the ire of the Left with his unflattering portrayal of the Vietcong in The Deer Hunter, but apparently some people just can't take "mea culpa" for an answer.
I should probably add at this point that I'm sure Miller is a perfectly nice guy, and if he was sitting next to me at a screening, I wouldn't necessarily move a seat or two further away.
Oh, and if you agree with him on The Black Cat and Heaven's Gate and would like to read more, you can order the book over at Amazon here.